You’re reading Shout Out To Your Ex, our series on breakups, bouncing back, and why the end of a relationship can be the start of everything else.
Breakups are brutal. But when they involve more than two people, they can become all the more complicated. Polyamorous couples especially know the difficulty of walking away from relationships.
For dad Shai Fishman, who realised he wanted to open up his marriage of 21 years, it started off well – his wife agreed to become a polyamorous couple. While parenting their children, 47-year-old Fishman, who now runs workshops on poly loving, lived with his wife, her partner, and his own partner.
But when his wife decided she wanted to be monogamous with her new partner, not him, Fishman was devastated. It was the end of their marriage. Fishman continued his own relationship, and is now involved with two separate women who each also date other people.
In the years since he first began exploring polyamory, he has seen relationships form and finish. Each time he has gone through the motions of a breakup, while ultimately accepting there are other more suitable people for him.
“I knew I wanted to explore polyamory after I had feelings for other people,” Fishman tells HuffPost UK. “And I felt guilt, felt shame, I didn’t know what to do with it, I didn’t want to cheat. And I didn’t understand what was wrong with me because I didn’t feel wrong for having feelings, they just felt natural. But I felt wrong, because society told me that it was wrong to have feelings for other people. So I felt kind of trapped, until I got exposed to a few things.”
It was after a frank discussion over some time that Fishman and his wife agreed to an open marriage. But it didn’t last long. “Within about seven or eight months of opening up, she asked me for a divorce. And I was heartbroken over it.
“But at the same time, I knew all along I was taking that risk. Telling the kids was even harder, because they didn’t think anything was wrong in our relationship.”
In 2017, three years after their separation, Fishman and his wife officially got divorced. But when the pandemic hit, she moved back in. “There were multiple parental figures to support the kids and everybody got along really great,” says Fishman. “Today I live with my ex-wife, my partner, Lea, and my partner, Krissy. And all of us are also dating, and dating other people here and there.”
There are benefits to the domestic setup. “Lea and Krissy are both my partners but they’re also family to each other,” Fishman says. They love each other. They don’t consider each other romantic partners by the standard definition.”
And when it comes to dating, there is a recognition of individual and couple needs: “Lea and I prefer to date other women together. Krissy explores on her own and sometimes Lea explores on her own and sometimes I explore on my own, but there are certain preferences.”
Fishman acknowledges that it is “complex and interesting”, even to them, but that it works. “We just do our best to connect with people who have done their work and are emotionally stable and intelligent. We talk through stuff with really good communication. We’re gentle and kind to each other along the way, too.”
Dating multiple people means multiple feelings, of course, and sometimes those feelings can turn sour.
“That happens in like in any other relationship, things can change,” admits Fishman. “What we try to do is just honour everybody with where they’re at, whether their needs are not getting met, or if they want to explore other things.”
Where a poly breakup can differ to a monogamous one is often more in how it’s received by other people.
As relationships counsellor Kathy Labriola, author of The Polyamory Breakup Book, explains: “When you go through a breakup in a monogamous relationship, you have the ‘luxury’ of wallowing in self-pity and not having the responsibility of a relationship, any responsibility towards anyone.
“But when you are poly, and you go through a breakup, your other partner or partners expect and deserve your time and attention.”
Another way that poly breakups can be different, and more challenging, she says, is what she calls “the public relations problems” created by the split.
“Most people have found their friends and relatives are very supportive when they are going through a monogamous breakup, but are actively hostile about a poly breakup, because they assume that polyamory was the cause of the breakup,” says Labriola – which is not true in about half of all poly breakups.
“They believed all along that this poly thing could not work, and that you are doing something wrong or immoral anyway by being poly, so they usually feel that a breakup is inevitable and you deserve whatever pain you are going through. Most friends and family members believe polyamory is the same as cheating, so they assume it will lead to disaster or divorce, and when it does, they will actually gloat and say, ‘I told you so’.”
“Some poly couples and triads have actually sent out emails to their friends and loved ones explaining that they are breaking up and briefly identifying the reasons for the breakup, and asking for their loved ones not to ‘take sides’ and to be compassionate and support each of them at this difficult time. That seems to help reduce the negative backlash and encourage people to be more understanding.”
There are things that people in polyamorous relationships can do when dealing with a breakup, says Labriola. “I often advise people going through a poly breakup to be cognisant of the potential ‘public relations’ fall-out from a poly breakup, be cautious about who you tell and how much you tell them, and be aware they are unlikely to be supportive. Reach out instead to poly friends and attend poly support groups to seek help in getting through this very painful time.
“Poly people going through a breakup need to communicate more rather than less with their remaining partner or partners, and that is extremely difficult when you are in such an impaired state of heartbreak.”
As Fishman says of his setup: “It’s just life, and we just have, I guess, more of life to deal with, with poly breakups. Really, our commitment is not to possess or hold someone back. Our commitment is for everybody to thrive and to feel safe and seen and loved. And that may or may not be with us.”